In the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare there is a quote that says, “How far that candle shines his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Today’s post isn’t going to be, dare I say, typical. I want to talk about the opportunities we have to serve in OCF. Our theme this month, as has been reiterated over and over again, is John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Shakespeare got one thing right here, and maybe he wasn’t trying to use an Orthodox perspective, but we too believe that the world today has darkness, but the best way to keep the light shining, is to shine our own light. Now you may be thinking, “Um, I am in college, I don’t have the money/resources to do good deeds. Guess what!? OCF can give you everything you need in an easy two step process.
First Step: Find an OCF YES Day or Retreat near you by clicking this link https://www.ocf.net/events/
Second Step: Register! (Don’t forget to show up! I guess there are three steps…)
What does a YES Day or Retreat have to do with service and good deeds?
YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Days are an amazing one-day program endorsed by OCF and the offered by FOCUS North America (https://focusnorthamerica.org/) where students gather at a church and complete a service project of some kind. For example, last year I attended the Chicago YES Day. We went to a fast food restaurant and bought a ton of food and handed it out to people on the street and talked with them. It was really cool to hear people’s stories, even if they were just wanting a snack waiting for the bus. To see people be affected by what we did, was an incredible experience. I know I tend to forget how fortunate I am. I have my own car, and a roof over my head, and some people didn’t even have a jacket on a cold October day. People asked us where we were from, and we were given the opportunity to share our faith. Some people had heard of Orthodoxy, and some said they would even try to go to the local church that was hosting us! This truly lifted our spirits, and warmed my heart in places I didn’t know were getting cold.
Last November at the Midwest Fall Retreat we made blankets. What does that have to do with good deeds? Well, we made tie blankets, with cute patterns, and sent them to a pregnancy resource center for babies. Blankets are important because babies being swaddled and wrapped in something gives them a sense of security. Pregnancy resource centers are organizations that help mothers who have difficult decisions to make when they become pregnant. Some mothers lose support from people they relied on and need help. They can go to the pregnancy resource center and receive assistance, baby food, diapers, and blankets. The blankets are important because for a mother that feels like they are losing control, the blanket isn’t just a sense of security for the baby anymore, but for the mom as well, who sees that her baby is being taken care of, and is comfortable.
Last March at the Central Illinois District Retreat, the service event involved going to a place called Salt ‘n Light Ministry. This organization allows people to work and gain store credit to buy groceries, clothing, furniture, basically anything someone might need. We had students stocking fruits and vegetables, printing price tags, sorting clothes, and lots of other chores to help out. This ministry provides people with the dignity in knowing that they aren’t receiving handouts, but are reaping the fruits of their labor.
So, with all those examples of things I did last year, I now am urging you to get involved, and to allow our light to shine as a “good deed shines in a weary world.” You never know when you could be the person to help someone learn to shine their own light. Sign up for an OCF event today! I promise you won’t regret it!
Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s set the scene: we had just finished breakfast after fully enjoying the treat that are the breakfast potatoes of the St. Iakovos Retreat Center. We settle down in in our seats, and we are suddenly attending a gospel concert starring none other than the wonderful Fr. Barnabas Powell. Fr Powell began to sing loudly in front of the whole conference, and to play along I exclaimed a loud and faithful, “TESTIFY,” which was followed by uproarious laughter. Let this conference begin I thought to myself.
Fr. Barnabas concludes his song and after the students’ excited applause he turns to us and in a serious and focused tone, says:
“If you do not know the identity of Jesus Christ, you will never know who you truly are.”
What followed was the stunned silence of a room of people doubting the knowledge of their own identity and the identity of Jesus Christ. This statement set the tone and topic for the conference, “Who do you say that I am?” from the Gospel of Matthew.
As a group, we collectively gathered our scuba gear knowing fully well that at this conference we were diving DEEP into our identity and the identity of Christ. You may ask, what do we mean when we say God, and what is the identity of Jesus Christ? We as Orthodox understand God as the uncreated Being, the Creator of all, who reveals Himself as three persons in the Holy Trinity in full and complete communion, as inseparable as the fire of three candles sharing a flame.
Thankfully, Christ tells us who He is, He just flat out tells us so there is no ambiguity:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Therefore, we know that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Now what does this have to do with our own identity? In order for us to fully know ourselves and fully comprehend our identity, we have to begin to understand that Christ is the truth of life, its purpose, and its instiller of purpose concurrently. Christ is our nexus and the face, the icon by which we can know God, who lived and breathed on earth as we do, the infinity who became finite for us.
But why should we even care about knowing Christ and knowing ourselves? It’s because we’re diseased–sorry guys but it had to be said. We live in a fallen world and a fallen state, and the difference between knowing God and not knowing Him is the difference between wholeness and emptiness. Every time we are longing for home, we are hungry, we are thirsty, we cause pain, and feel pain we understand this emptiness and feel our tangible distance from God.
How do we begin to know God? Fr. Jannakos helped us answer that question. He taught us that we begin to know Him by imitating Him, by learning to tame the passions and working to attain the virtues of the Holy Spirit.
My spiritual father described the taming of the passions to me in the most beautiful way I have ever heard it, and I want to share it with you:
“Imagine the passions as an untamed fire, it grows, it spreads, and it causes destruction in everything it grows through. It is so big, it is unignorable and wild. Our job is to take those passions and tame them and (pointing to the light in the kandyli) turn them into the tame and beautiful flame of the candle that gives us warmth and light.”
This is the way of the Orthodox, becoming LIKE Christ in His perfect and sinless self. But how can we take this lofty theology and bring it down to the nitty gritty of the everyday life of a college student? To that, we turn to the expertise of Mother Gabriella, the abbess of Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan.
Mother Gabriella, amidst her talk on the things she has learned as an abbess, and as an immigrant to the United States from Romania. She taught me how to incorporate small lessons in discipline and asceticism into my daily life. Some of her pro tips:
- Wake up exactly when your alarm clock sounds.
- Get to church earlier (1/2 way during matins). It shows respect and devotion to God.
- Take a few moments every day to be quiet.
- Clean up and put your things where they belong.
- Control your diet.
Ultimately, these tips can help you with the discipline needed to resist temptation. The most important thing in struggle is to never struggle alone–struggle with God because alone you cannot do it. Lastly, the piece of advice that can be applied to be a better human being is to just let things go. Forgive people. You never know what they are going through on the inside. Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake. Let. It. Go.
College Conference Midwest 2019 was a blast. I got to meet a group of new people, and really get to know what they are thinking about and going through on college campuses. I got to catch up with old friends and have new adventures. College Conference is the place where you can learn and be strengthened in your faith and learn how to better yourself spiritually.
This last conference, Fr. Jonathan Bannon was able to bring an array of relics and I was able to physically meet a new slew of saints at this conference. So not only did I make more friends but spiritual ones as well.
I urge you all to continue participating if you have and encourage those who haven’t just come and try it. Let your guard down, open your mind, and learn at College Conference.
My names Simeon and I go to County College of Morris in NJ. My Real Break experience started at the age of ten; surprising right? No they didn’t let a ten-year-old go on Real Break, but at the age of ten, I sent my oldest brother off on his first Real Break trip to Guatemala. It was the first of many trips to the airport, sending my siblings to exotic locations: Alaska, Mexico, Istanbul, Jerusalem. But it was that first trip when my brother came home that I also wanted to have an amazing experience just like him.
I was excited watching them leave, and I waited in anticipation for their amazing stories and pictures that they would share with me upon their return. They inspired me because I saw their love for Christ and their life experience grow after every trip, and I awaited an opportunity for my own trip.
For the next eight years of my life, I told my parents how excited I was to go to college, not because of the typical reasons, but because I could finally go on my own Real Break trip.
Going into my first Real Break trip I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first time flying by myself, and I had connecting flights. I was both anxious in anticipation of the fun, but also anxious because of the logistics of flying alone. But what I received in the end, in spiritual and global wisdom, I never expected, and it made any stress worth while. The joy in worshiping and working alongside some of the most dedicated college students was, for me, a life-changing experience. The camaraderie with the other students that I experience during the trip was deepened by our deep love for Christ and allowed us all to connect and become friends in a matter of minutes.
For example, on my trip to Alaska, I found myself reflection on how incredible it is to share the amazing beauty that God has blessed us with with my fellow Orthodox Christians. We were constantly surrounded by wonderful white landscapes of snow and witnessed the awe-inspiring expanses of the winter-laden forests. The opportunity to give back to the Alaskan people was uplifting and helped make the trip feel full.
The Alaskan people were appreciative of our service, and we were appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about them and their way of life. We had a lot in common with the cold–me being from New Jersey and all! Not only did we serve the Alaskan people, but we also got to participate in the Lenten services, which was so spiritually fulfilling. I came out of this trip with ten new friends, all of which I know I’ll have for the rest of my life. We all shared in each others struggles and were strengthened when we went on our respective paths.
So you may be sitting here reading my experience thinking, “I’m glad you had a great time on your trip, but my names not Simeon, I don’t go to County College of Morris, and I’m not even from NJ. How can you guarantee I’m going to have just as great an experience?” Well you’re partially right, most likely your name isn’t Simeon, but that’s not what made my trip special. What made my trip special was the people I met, the places I visited, and the opportunity to serve.
You can read any other Real Break story, and you’ll see how much of a fantastic time these trips are. It all starts with you, and a decision you’ll never regret.
My names Simeon Brasowski. I’m a senior at County College of Morris in NJ. I am the 2018-2019 Real Break Student Leader, and I love travelling. My favorite hobbies are hiking, socializing, and photography. If I could, I might just live outside for the rest of my life. For the socializing, I enjoy meeting new people and just talking. My friends think I’m a chatty Cathy, but it’s a hobby for me.
If you have any questions about Real Break, please email me at email@example.com
This year, I attended my first OCF retreat at St. Methodios Faith & Heritage Center in New Hampshire. I went along with 25 other college students from the Northeast region of the United States.
The retreat was held on a day that was brisk but not to the point where we were freezing. We lit fires every night, went hiking through the beautiful trails behind the camp, and participated in the intimacy of divine services, including Paraklesis, Vespers, and Liturgy.
The theme of the retreat was “Smell the Flowers: The Easy Path to the Kingdom”, and our service work was the perfectly unplanned task of landscaping; we planted flowers in front of the camp’s main dining hall.
The premise of the retreat was based off of a story from the book Wounded by Love, written by St. Porphyrios of Mount Athos. Briefly, St. Porphyrios was visiting the island of Patmos at the cave where St. John received the Revelation. He was overcome with grace and happiness from the Holy Spirit and wanted to escape in solitude to fully enjoy it, yet he couldn’t because of the amount of tourists surrounding him.
St. Porphyrios stepped away from the cave, in hopes to come back at a later time and experience the Holy Spirit once more. After returning to the cave, St. Porphyrios’ prayer felt dry and empty, and he did not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. After stepping outside of the cave of Revelation, he decided to stop and smell the flowers.
He was overcome with awe and understanding when he contemplated the beauty and miracle of creation, which he experienced when he decided to take a moment to observe the flowers. St. Porphyrios came to an understanding at that time that God does not work on our time – He works in His time.
Initially, I was nervous to go on the OCF retreat, as I am currently a catechumen for the Orthodox Church and always felt as though I knew less than those around me – those already established in their faith and knowledge of the Church. To my surprise, there were other catechumens and many other converts.
The first night those who were raised within the Orthodox Church, those who have converted to the Orthodox Church, and those going through catechumenate stayed up until hours of the morning talking about our individual journeys in Orthodoxy.
This was the first time since deciding to be a part of the Church that I was surrounded by peers who were as passionate, enthusiastic, and so inspirational with their faith in Orthodoxy as I was. Conversations of faith were like wildfire that just kept burning. In the beginning, I thought to myself, “How could I be involved in these conversations of faith when there is SO much I still don’t know?”
I was comforted by the story of St. Porphyrios. Before coming a saint, before becoming a shepherd of God, he had a second-grade education. One thing I learned on this retreat is that it’s okay to not know everything and, in a sense, we will never know everything. We are all on a continuous journey, and we all have much to learn.
This post was written by Samantha Fricke, a student at the University of Binghamton. She is a senior studying psychology.
Hello, my name is Danielle Hines! I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the Johnstown area to be specific). I’m here to talk to you all about SLI, and my experience there this past August!
How did you hear about SLI, and how you decide to come?
I heard about SLI from college conference 2017 and further from Caroline Mellekas (SLB Chairman). I was interested in going, but when summer came around I went to camp at the Antiochian Village for PLC, I was still on the fence about it. I was nervous that I wouldn’t know anyone there. Luckily, I met Peter Karos (College Confrence Midwest Leader), and he and Caroline, convinced me to attend saying I would love it and I would have an amazing time.
What did you want to get out of SLI, did you end up getting that?
I wanted to learn to be a better Orthodox leader and to learn more about my faith in a different way then I have before. Yes, I did get these things out of SLI and even more. I learned that working alone is sometimes the most difficult thing to do, and it’s ok to ask for help. I learned so much about praying and got a different perspective on generosity in the church.
What was your favorite session, what did you learn, and why did you like it?
My favorite session from SLI was Fr Stephen Vernak’s (SLI Spiritual Advisor) on Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom. I learned a new perspective on being still and prayer isn’t a big gesture we need to do all the time, and praying can be as simple as just crossing ourselves or saying morning prayers. One of his quotes that stuck with me and was, “We should try live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could rewritten by looking us.” Another point from the book he focused on was our relationship with the Lord starts with each other. He also gave us two Bible verses on stillness. Those were Exodus 14:13 and Psalm 45:11. The biggest thing I took from this talk was to find your stillness and keep calm with prayers. The reason I liked this session was it help me in an area I was really struggling as a Orthodox Christian.
Describe your favorite moment from the institute.
My favorite moment of the institute was sitting at night and talking to everyone. At one point after dinner I noticed we were all sitting, talking to each other scattered all around the retreat center, some people upstairs some people down stairs and some cooking marshmallows by the fire that was outside. And at one point, we all looked at each other and said, “Let’s go up stairs and dance!” So we danced to Arabic music, Greek music, and even learned some Russian dances as well. We all had come together, and no matter what jurisdiction we were, we all came together that night.
My second favorite moment is from the first night, when all the participants had arrived we all went into the the chapel and chanted Paraklesis after evening prayers in celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. It was the most beautiful thing I had heard and seen in a long time. All the students and jurisdictions worshiping together, singing the service.
What are the things that you are going to take with you as an Orthodox Leader?
The things i’m going to take with me as an Orthodox Leader is to show others the teachings of the Church through my actions, guided by my love for God. Every person is different, and might not understand them one way or the other. I’m also going to take with me being a better listener and listening to people’s thoughts and problems making sure I listen before I react.
This is my reflection on SLI I hope this gives your a perspective of what SLI is and about I hope many of you come and participate. I will definitely be coming back next year to SLI and I hope you’ll join me!
Do you ever have one of those days in which you have so much work to do that you simply sit down and do nothing? Like, because you’re so overwhelmed, instead of chipping away at the work, you just deny that all of it exists?
Welcome to college.
In the worst solution ever contrived by young men and women–and that’s really saying something–we remove the burden of work from shoulders by denying its immediacy. We delay it, pretending as if we have all the time of the world. We crash, watch Netflix, eat a cookie (okay, several cookies), and feel better.
I think we can do the same things with our spiritual life–with our life in general, really.
And it’s understandable, easier to understand I think–because the time period is longer. The comeuppance of our spiritual life comes when we die, and when we arrive at the final judgment. Remembering the stakes of that eventual judgment is what gives us perspective on our daily lives; understanding that what we do today affects where we end up for eternity.
Isn’t that terrifying? Like, isn’t that draw-droppingly scary? I enter shutdown mode when I just have a lot of papers and assignments to do; when faced with the Final Judgment there’s no wonder, I think, that I want to curl up in a little ball and hide in the comfort of willing ignorance.
When we forget about that ultimate moment–the moment in which our actions are measured against our purpose; what we did against what we were made to do–we are seemingly freed from the responsibility to align with our purpose. We feel, perhaps a little synthetically, the freedom that we didn’t experience when fulfilling our purpose. Without a sense of finiteness, consequence, actions, decisions–these all exist in a vacuum. They do not matter, because we can inevitably rectify them on the ever-arriving tomorrow.
Lent, I think, helps remind us of our temporality. The Lenten process is a big countdown–among other things, of course–to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By carving out this chunk of the year to remember the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, we’re not only reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and what that means for our salvation, but we also encounter an experience of a man–Jesus Christ–understanding his daily actions, choices, and moments all within the context of his death.
We always talk about Lent as a period of preparation, and a key aspect of that period is that we know when it ends: we have work to do; and we know when the work is due and the period ends. We can shirk it like we might our schoolwork at times, but there is an ultimate end, and that finiteness is what motivates us to be the way that we should, and not crumble to our vices in the moment.
It’s important to experience, every day, our end. To know that we do not have unlimited time and unlimited tries. That’s what instills our life with meaning, drives us beyond temptations. Experiencing temporality can be hard and scary, certainly–but it’s important that we do it, else we eternally attempt to avoid who we were meant to become.
Ah! SLB applications are open!
This is the first year of my college career that I won’t be applying for the Student Leadership Board–it feels weird. I’ve loved my position here, made some amazing friends and ridiculous memories alike, and hopefully done some good for the parents, students, and chapter advisers that swing by the blog.
In a perfect world, I’m back for year 3. But the world ain’t perfect–it’s incredibly busy, sometimes super stressful, and full of sacrifices. I’m incredibly blessed to attend a great college–but it’s very rigorous; incredibly blessed to have rewarding jobs in my prospective field for the future–but they demand the bulk of my time.
It would be cowardly and dishonest to not stand before you today and tell you I didn’t do nearly as good of a job this year in my position as the Publications Student Leader as I should have. I didn’t do nearly as good of a job on schoolwork, actual job work, going to the gym, reading for leisure, whatever. Life overwhelmed me.
I tell you this to offer a cautionary tale: if you’re going to do something, do it right. When you apply to the Student Leadership Board, it shouldn’t be primarily that you may throw it on your resume (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). It shouldn’t be because your friends are also applying for the Board (though they should and that’d be nice). It should be because you want to help Orthodox college students get through the briar patch–you want to, and you can as well.
Being on the OCF board is mission work. We forget that sometimes: it is mission work for the Church. We are spreading Christianity, not only to those in our communities who may be interested, but also to those who were raised in the Church. Whether we grew up in the Church or only recently joined it, we are always growing into the Church, growing through the Church. As we develop, so much our relationship with the Church–we encounter new things, experience and overcome new struggles by breaching new, previously undiscovered corners of our faith.
In short, college changes us: but the Church accompanies and even guides us through that change. OCF helps the Church do just that.
Being on the Student Leadership Board places the onus of helping the Church guide students through the college change squarely on your shoulders. This is your mission. When you work as a Regional Student Leader, you organize events for, reach out to, and coordinate with all of the OCFers in your area. When you work on the Programs side of things–Real Break, College Conferences–you spend all year forming the incredible, nationwide opportunities that only places like OCF can provide. When you work on my side of things–Media, Podcast, PR, Publications–you have a daily grind of linking OCF chapters from across the nation, and unifying us all through our common struggles and successes.
But you aren’t only the agent of the mission; you are also the subject. You are in college; you change. It is, I think, a fallacy to say “I am not strong in my faith, I’m struggling so much, I can’t be on the OCF board.” Rather, joining the board only gets you closer to the process, deeper into the restorative and strengthening powers of the Church and the faith. It is work, yes–but it is also respite, joy, and salvation. That is, inherently, what I think we all experience in our faith: work, trial, tribulation, struggle–but through these fires, we grow and experience Christ.
Apply for the Student Leadership Board. Serve the mission of the Church. Struggle, grow, and encounter Christ.
Here we go, team!
The beginning of Great Lent in college is–at least for me–markedly different than how it began in high school. In high school, I lived with a bunch of people who were also awaiting Forgiveness Sunday–I believe the technical term is “family”–and as such, I felt the onset of Great Lent with each passing day. We planned out the meals; we talked about the church services; we shared our plans for fasting.
In college, it just kinda happens. You don’t have the community–or at least, most of us don’t have as strong of one–to commiserate with us about the loss of choice; to remind us of the wonderful opportunity set before us.
This is not an unfamiliar vacuum, I think–it’s the one of which we are perpetually aware, to one degree or another. “It’s tougher to be Orthodox at college,” we constantly tell our young adults–why? Because that omnipresence of Orthodox family is gone. We are “on our own.” We do not have the safety net.
As such, the onset of Lent isn’t as ground-shaking in college. The vacuum eats up the reverberations, the crash of the impact, and we are left with a world that feels perplexingly unchanged, from Friday into Monday. We have entered the most important period of the Orthodox calendar–but the world outside has just kept on spinning.
We–as we so often are as college students–are left responsible for far more of our world than we once were. We no longer feel the change because of our environment; rather, we are responsible for creating the change–both in ourselves and in our environment.
What does that mean, concretely? It means that our Lenten effort–and that’s a very intentional word: effort–has expanded. We once were responsible for fasting–from meat and dairy and television and music and the like–when we lived in the environment that supported our fast, bolstered our faith, facilitated our church attendance, limited our access to these temptations. Now, we are not only responsible for fasting. We are also responsible for the environment: sculpting our daily world to better provide that support, limit that access, facilitate that attendance. In a way, we are responsible for both walking the tightrope, and erecting the safety net below it.
The mind may immediately refute this notion. “I don’t need to erect the safety net,” the mind says. “I needed the safety net when I was younger, but I’m older now. I have a stronger will, a better resolve. I need to prove to myself, my family, my priest that I can pull off this fast without the help, the positive environment. It will count more that way, anyway.”
This, I would argue, is the temptation of the prideful mind. This mind is not interested in the fast–it’s interested in success, in esteem, in victory over the odds. Completing the fast doesn’t end with the good little Orthodox Christian, victoriously standing upright in the dramatic sunlight like the end of a movie–the fast ends with a dead and risen God. That is the victory.
As such, you could argue about how much the safety net, the supportive environment, is needed all you like. The environment helps us, strengthens our fast, sharpens our faith. I’m interested in that, regardless of the sacrifices it means I have to make–not going out to restaurants that I know have few fasting options; not attending parties that my friends will attend; making new spring break plans.
Enjoy your new responsibility; gear your new opportunity to a more productive, self-altering fast than you’ve ever experienced. It will be hard–thank God for that. It’s the hard things that make us better.
The way we recognize and live our faith online is funny sometimes. When we post online, we have a bit more time between thinking of the message we wish to convey and executing it.
As such, we often craft the image of ourselves that we’d like to present with a lot more intention. Sometimes that can feel a little fake—but its not wrong, I think, to be deliberate in how we convey ourselves through a medium as permanent as Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.
On the same note, there’s also a renowned invincibility—or at least, a bolstering of protective factors—that we experience when we post online. It has something to do with anonymity, occasionally—but when our name is behind our words, we still enjoy the freedom from pressures that arise from being face-to-face with someone, or in a group of people. Through the Internet, we don’t have to respond right away to things, so we feel more comfortable making stronger claims; we don’t have to experience potential awkwardness in real time, and we are accordingly emboldened.
As such—and I mean this in all sincerity—social media and online interactions can be a truly excellent place to manifest our faith. I know that I’m an avid Twitter user, and very often when I’m composing a Tweet with a grateful tone, I end up reconsidering terms like “I’m thankful” or “I’m fortunate,” and often end up focusing on “I’m very blessed.” It’s a small change, but a very intentional one. The little things in my life are blessings, and thanks belong to God. I don’t think of that enough in everyday conversation; the extended time of typing out a post allows me to remember and recognize that.
It goes even deeper than that. Back to Twitter—a lot of the work I do (I’m an NFL Draft analyst) lends itself to disagreement. Disagreement, especially on social media, lends itself to arguments. Arguments breed potshots, low blows, name-calling, and other such instinctual tactics when we feel the threat of being wrong in front of others. That’s the other edge of the sword when it comes to being protected through anonymity, I suppose—most people with whom I interact online, I’ll never meet in real life. So shooting from the hip holds very few tangible consequences to me.
By that same token, however, I’m more likely to speak out when I’m upset in person, because I feel it more immediately, more viscerally. I feel as if I have less control. Through social media, I certainly feel the desire to comment on someone’s politically-charged post with my own opinions—but what good does that add to the world? And when someone gets snarky or condescending in the comments section on one of my takes, I could easily roast and embarrass them—but how does this benefit my Christian life (and their life, Christian or otherwise)?
We’re constantly told of the dangerous of interacting on social media and through the Internet—rightfully so, as it has its pitfalls and traps. We are meant to be living images of Christ, however, and we shouldn’t use the difficulties of online interactions to recuse ourselves from that responsibility. The very process of typing instead of speaking gives us time—more time to think about what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, and why we’re saying it. You have the opportunity to gear that time positively, to convey a clearer message of the Christ that lives through you. Every day, I try to take that opportunity—I hope that you do, too.
Image from Ted on Flickr
“Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.”
Man, that Pharisee sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t he?
That’s always–God forgive me–one of my first thoughts when I hear the Gospel reading of this Sunday. “You knucklehead! How is it a good idea to thank God for not making you like another one of God’s creations? Dude!”
This really is one of the most extraordinary weeks that the Church gives us. A fast-free week–not following any feast day–but rather that we may “fast from our fasting,” if you will. That we may step away from the works and practices that we so often and so easily substitute for “faith,” and investigate rather our faith in God.
That’s what the publican had that the Pharisee lacked–or rather, that with which the Pharisee struggled. Faith in God.
The Pharisee still believed in God, I believe–but as the Gospel says, the Pharisee stood at the altar and prayed “with himself.” He didn’t pray with Christ, or with the saints, with the Theotokos, as we as Christians are called to do.
The Pharisee prayed with himself because he had faith in himself–not in God. He had faith in his tithes, so he prayed to his tithes; he had faith in his fasting, so he prayed to his fasting. He gave his tithes and fasting and church attendance–his works–praise. He sanctified his works in the temple with his words; he exalted them, because he believed through them he had been saved.
The publican, as we know, had faith in God. He didn’t turn to the liturgical services, the hymnography and the psalms, the works of fasting and tithing as the source of mercy. He spoke from his heart, plainly to God, beseeching that God save him. The publican was only interested in that which mattered: being with God by being saved through Him. He didn’t have works; he had faith.
The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is so powerful, and thank God we use it to begin our fasting period. But when we hear it, we must be wary, less fall into the Pharisee’s very trap:
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee.”
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee. I really have a relationship with God, I speak to God directly–like the publican–and I don’t get caught up in making sure I pray every day, making sure I fast when I should, making sure I attend church. I feel spiritual–I feel a connection with something divine–and I don’t get all caught up in the trappings of the Church.”
We forget, sometimes, that the Pharisees are/were the “good” guys. At least, they weren’t actively bad–they were men of faith in God, but often too entrenched in the faith they knew to recognize the New Testament and the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees modeled good behavior to the faithful: things like church attendance, fasting, and tithing fall squarely under that category.
The traditions of the Church and practices taught by the fathers aren’t bad–they’re good! They’re powerful and necessary and rejuvenating, but only when they serve their purpose: bringing us closer to God, that we may be saved by Him. When they are done for their own sakes–or worse, for the sake of our self-assuredness and pride–they become noxious distractions.
Avoid this week and this Lent the Pharisee’s trap–do not find yourself judging or boasting in either direction. The publican is our example: in humility and without fear, doing whatever he could to draw closer to God.
It was supposed to be my third College Conference in a row.
And, I mean, it was. I was technically at the Antiochian Village, with other college students, during the conference. However, I spent most of it holed up in my dark room, feeling like garbage.
Pro tip: if you want to enjoy an OCF event, do not get sick.
Let’s take something solid out of a situation that involved some major headaches, at least five boxes of tissues, and a metric ton of green tea: I can now write a reflection for you about what it’s like to not go to College Conference.
I’m sure you know what it’s like to have all of your friends hanging out without you, because you’re super cool. But I had buddies back at the conference I hadn’t seen in upwards of two years, and all of the shenanigans into which we would usually get, they enjoyed without me. That, obviously, was not very fun.
One of the greatest aspects of College Conference is meal time, in my opinion, because you sit in little eight-seat nuclei scattered across the room and just chill. Some meals you’re sitting with all the people you know and the people they know, reminiscing and inside-joking and the like; other meals you’re with seven folks you’ve never met before, and you’re bonding and laughing and it’s all goodness.
It’s very common, in my opinion, for someone to hear about College Conference for the first time–small groups, keynote speaker, workshops speakers, church and more church–and miss that. They miss not only the big chunks of social time built into the schedule, but also that marginal social time that’s just as enjoyable. I also missed the time, mostly because I was gross and food tasted gross, but the point still stands: I missed that wonderful, carefree, responsibility-less time with friends. If you didn’t make it to college conference, you missed it as well.
Missing the speakers wasn’t something I anticipated hitting me as hard as it did, but here we are. I’ve always loved the speakers, but it felt like my takeaways were only a few quick quotes and maybe some general themes. I wish I’d take away more, but often that’s all I get.
At least, I felt as if that was all I got.
Having missed a solid amount of the talks, I’ve discovered that the talks do a lot more for the listener than providing information. In fact, I’d argue that the content of the talks isn’t so much meant to be remembered–rather, it’s the engagement with the material that’s truly valuable. It’s not about knowing what was said, but rather hearing what’s said and interacting with it; listening attentively; bringing the focus of our mind to a higher plane that it would otherwise be.
I think about what we hear before the Gospel during liturgy: “Let us attend!” But after the Gospel, we don’t hear “Make sure you remember what just happened!” Then we get the sermon, which doesn’t reiterate the Gospel to ensure we remember it, but helps us engage with the readings through interpretations, stories of the church fathers, and the like.
I missed the mental work of being in the talks; of being forced to think of bigger and better things.
3) Not Words
Admittedly, I could have done a far better job with this in my little room at the conference center–sitting in silence and being still. However, I was sick and grumpy, so I watched a lot of Netflix and found other ways to busy myself instead.
College Conference is smarter than to try and force silence and stillness on you–that’s not how silence and stillness works. It’s extremely voluntary–you cannot quiet all of the worries, stresses, and thoughts bouncing between your ears if you want to be embroiled in those thoughts. Trust me–I fall victim to that issue all of the time.
But College Conference does create that contemplative space for those who want it–in the chapels, the museum area, wherever. Often, the greatest obstacle standing between us and stillness is creating a space for that stillness in our busy lives–but College Conference offers that space, which encourages us to capitalize on it, as it is rare and valuable.
With my cold, I was far too self-pitying to find meditative silence; at home, not attending the conference, I’m sure the madness of life would have stifled me just as effectively.
If you went to College Conference, awesome. I hope you didn’t take for granted all the stuff I was sorely missing this year. It’s a holy time, that blesses us with many gifts–some we recognize; some we don’t.
If you didn’t go to College Conference this year–like me–you missed out. But I won’t be making the same mistake next winter break; and I hope you don’t, either.
A blessed feast of Saint Herman to you all!
One of my favorite things about December is the feasts of the saints. In my OCA church populated by Russians, Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th is a cups hand to microphone big deal. One week later, on December 13th, we have the feast of Saint Herman–and we’re blessed to have his relics in my parish.
It’s such a great blessing to have these feast days in the month of December–not only because they give me a few extra liturgies in my familiar home parish, but because they help us prepare us for the Nativity of our Lord.
But standing in church, specifically today, on the feast of Saint Herman, reminds me how important it is to cultivate a relationship with the saints…
By Ted (St. Herman of Alaska) via Wikimedia Commons
…aaand how much I struggle with that.
Developing that conversation with the saints has always been such a great struggle of mine–if you haven’t experienced that, that’s a blessing in and of itself. I think it requires good humility to develop that relationship with the saints, and humility is something with which I certainly struggle.
A relationship with the saints immediately implies a need for help–a need that I undeniably have, but continuously endeavor to deny. Often, my approach to the saints reminds me of my father trying to fix the plumbing when I was kid: he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing, but he was going to figure it out on his own. Forget actually calling a plumber–even YouTube was too great of a crutch. He was smarter than the pipes.
Saints have figured it out. Saints know what’s up. Saints have the blueprint.
But a prideful mind insists that taking someone else’s blueprint is cheating; is a falsehood. It pokes holes in each saint story: take Saint Herman, who was a young, promising monk whose ideal life ended up leading him to a remote island in Alaska–that doesn’t feel very analogous to my life at all. Or Saint Nicholas, who was out punching heretics and sneaking bags of gold into people’s boots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down to punch a heretic, I just think I might get arrested afterward, and my mom would be so mad…
But this is where we get fooled by the blueprint metaphor. The saints’ lives aren’t put before us so that we can do what they did, like robots learning a code; mimicking their every action like a step-by-step instruction set for Heaven entry and eternal rejoicing. The saints’ lives don’t show us the “what”–they don’t even show us the “how,” really. They show us what happens when you firmly, unflinchingly, devotedly believe in the “why.”
Again, action without intention is animatronic. There is no value in doing exactly what the saints did because you want the results they achieved. That’s not to say we can’t employ the strategies of the saints, learn lessons from their examples–but to assume the saints drew a map to the Kingdom is a mistake.
The saints lived lives fueled by their love for Christ. And because each saint followed different paths (St. Herman from the monastery, St. Elizabeth from royalty, St. Moses the Black from crime, St. Mary of Egypt from prostitution), we know it isn’t about the exact minutiae of their lives. It’s about that one thing that was common between them all: the love for Christ.
As such, if we struggle to relate with one unique saint, maybe that’s okay. But if we struggle relating to at least one of the vast numbers of saints–a demographic defined by their common love for Christ–then it is certainly time to look inward.
Thank God for the lives of the saints, given to us by the Church as examples of faith in all of its forms. Thank God that we have the opportunity to investigate, participate in that depth of faith. No matter how we may struggle to form that relationship with the saints, we must recognize that they are the men and women who loved Christ harder than anyone else. If that is truly our goal, then these are our allies, our mentors, and our guides. We do not wish to become them; we wish to become like them.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the end of the road. The boss level. The final countdown.
Before you spiral into a pit of self-loathing, as you lament the classes you skipped and readings you skimmed in weeks long passed, we’re here to help.
Finals are an unbelievably stressful time, and it’s quite easy–almost encouraged, even–to throw everything out of wack. Schedules, sleep patterns, priorities, diet–in the mad dash that is studying for finals, the college culture often demands from us more than we can reasonably give. That disparity upsets our natural balance and our perspective.
As such, let’s take a deep breath and break down the best ways to stay sane in finals season.
As is rightfully so, prayer is a good first step in everything. Of course, prayer in situations like these can be quite difficult. We don’t want to step in front of our icons (a location that we, perhaps, have attended only infrequently in recent months) and suddenly approach God, the wish-granter and gift-giver, and submit our requests in a moment of need. Prayer is a relationship and a conversation, not an order given to a waiter.
For what, then do we pray?
Well, we still should not be afraid of asking for what we need–but we must recognize that we do not need to pass these exams. No matter how crucial they may be to our degree/occupation.
What we need is help–and that’s in everything, not just finals. In our fallen world with our fallen nature and our fallen habits, we need God’s help if we are ever to grow closer to Him, to live a life full of faith and worship.
As such, we have to be sure that we’re taking our finals, and hoping to do very well in our finals, in an effort to live a Christian life. If we wish for success on our finals for the sake of our pride–to get better grades than our neighbor–or for our greed–to get a high-paying job and make tons of money to hoard and treasure–then really it would be quite better for us to pray to God that He help us struggle and fail our finals, that we may fall away from this sin, this temptation.
That brings us nicely to our second point.
A final exam is, plainly, words on a piece of paper. So is a final paper.
This piece of paper will have more significant ramifications than most pieces of paper, assuredly. It will help define your grade, which will help define your GPA, which will help define your prospects to future employers/grad schools/internships/etc.
I do not say this to frighten you. Rather the opposite.
You will take one set of final exams per semester/quarter. That’s four or five exams across an 11-15 week stretch. This will happen perhaps 8 to 12 times in your life, on average.
Every Sunday, once a week, for the history of your life time and the millennia that preceded it, the Body and Blood of Christ is sacrificed for the sins of the world and all mankind. Your participation in this sacrament will help define you. It will help define your salvation.
Taking these final exams is, simply, not the most important thing you will do this month–it’s not the most important thing you will do this week. And when you consider your prayer life, your opportunities to love your neighbor, well…it’s likely not the most important thing you’ll do on the very day.
Now of course, this does not mean we dedicate no time to the exam–we still can and rightfully should. Unless your vocation is a monastic one, then significant chunks of your day will be devoted to staying afloat in this secular world. That’s okay.
But we cannot let the relatively sporadic nature of final exams fool us into believing they are more important than the more consistent occurrence of our sacramental life. The two events are simply on different planes.
“It’s not the end of the world” feels like a cliche. It really is one. But, in this case, it bears a significant weight: when the end of the world does indeed come (ah!), how you did on your final exams won’t matter much at all.
Knowing that we have asked God for help, and knowing that our undertaking, while rightful, is not the end-all, be-all of our well-being, let’s make a decision.
Remember, we were given free will by the Lord. He wants us to choose what we do, as conscious beings and not robots.
It is easy to forget we have free will. Often we feel like we don’t have free will because the pressures of our environment constrain us and form us. This is not the case.
While we do respond to our environment (e.g., when a class has an exam, we prepare and show up for it), we may make our own choices. Every action bears consequences, and we must fearlessly say that we accept those consequences from every choice we make. Pretending that we lost our free will is often an effort to absolve ourselves from those consequences: “I missed church on Sunday, but I had to study for an exam…”
The encouragement is this: study for your exams and work very hard on them, but do so with intention, not out of default. Don’t do it because other students are doing it, because you’ve been told it’s what you’re supposed to do. Do it because these exams are important to your ideal life; a life that is aimed not on worldly success, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). Do it because these exams, in some way, contribute to your path to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Glory be to God, we are blessed. Even when there are ups and downs in life, God is always there guiding us. How awesome is He? Our Almighty and Loving God never leaves our side no matter how sinful we are.
We have so many blessings to offer up to God and thank Him: being able to get up in the morning, go to class, go to College Conference or Real Break. The list goes on and on.
For me, OCF is one of the greatest blessings I am grateful for. I recently transferred schools and realized what a blessing my home chapter was for me. I definitely took many things for granted, and I did not realize the impact OCF, locally and in our North American programs, had and continues to have, on me.
I challenge each of you to take a moment and be still. Ponder all the blessings in your life and give glory to God! God willing, OCF is one of them. If you have an OCF chapter, don’t take it for granted. Give each person a hug and tell them why you are grateful for them. Thank your priest(s). Our spiritual advisors take precious time to spend with us and are vital to the OCF ministry. So really, take the time to thank your priest and your chapter. Life changes in a blink of an eye, and the present is the perfect time to have an attitude of gratitude.
In honor of giving thanks, as OCF we have launched a #GivingTuesday campaign, starting on November 28th and ending on December 15th.
This campaign is superrrrr important because it’s not us asking our parishes or women’s groups to help the ministry of OCF. This time, it’s us students who have the opportunity to make the biggest difference.
This campaign is built for us students to show our love for our ministry of OCF and support all the wonderful programs that are put on for us (retreats & such)! I’m sure you’re grumbling to yourself, “ugh, they want money.”
Hear me out. We know the reality of being a college student. Little drops fill a bucket, right? You can make a donation of $10, which for me is eating in instead of going out in NYC. Instead of buying a large pizza for $20 invite your friends over and make your own pizza, and donate to OCF.
You want to know something pretty amazing? A generous donor has offered to match every dollar raised before the concluding date! AND if you share this campaign and have people donate in your honor the two students with the most “nominations” will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship each. Yes folks, a scholarship!
With 7 days left (campaign ends December 15th), we are currently at $15,781: only $4,219 short of our $20,000 goal!
I know money is a touchy subject. Truthfully, I usually cringe when the Parish Council President asks for money at church. But, as Orthodox Christians true stewardship is giving our time, talents, and treasure.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. –2 Corinthians 9:6-7
So let’s begin now and give a little of our treasure to a ministry that works so hard for each of us. OCF is a ministry that has changed all of our lives in some way and will continue to do so as we graduate college and stay a part of Christ’s Living Body.
Share the word and let’s fill this OCF bucket each with our little drop!
Spyridoula Fotinis is a junior at the City College of New York where she is studying International Studies. She serves as the Public Relations Student Leader on the 2017-2018 Student Leadership Board.
Glory to Thee, making us dissatisfied with earthly things.
I’m a biology major, currently in my junior year, which means I get to mess around with all sorts of weird stuff. Currently, I’m wrapping up a semester-long experiment, the purpose of which was to isolate a virus, grow it on bacteria, and learn all about it (which is exactly as interesting and smelly as it sounds).
One of the high points was extracting the DNA, what really makes the little guy tick. My lab partner and I had spent two months growing our virus and worked for three straight hours to get that DNA out as meticulously as possible. Three hours of pipetting later, we got what we were looking for: a couple of drops of liquid in a vial. Two weeks later, it was in the trash, tossed out with everything else when the experiment ended.
It was one of the weirdest mixes of pride and sadness I’ve felt. So much work for so little, and even that little would end up in a dump just a short time later. It was, in a word, dissatisfying. It was amazing work, and we had done it well, and I was proud of the things I had done, but…in just a little while it had passed away.
Reading this verse and thinking about it, I’m realizing that life is full of buts (haha…buts). There’s nothing in our life that doesn’t come with its own sad little caveat. There are little ones: you can clean your room, but it’s just going to get dirty again (in spite of that, my mom still made me clean up my Legos). There are medium ones: you can put all your effort and money into school, but there’s no guarantee it’ll pay off; you can invest in relationships, but they’re almost certainly going to hurt you. And then, there’s the big one: you can live your life well, do good, love people, have it all…but you’re going to die, those you love are going to die, and everything you’ve stored up will, eventually, be dust.
Sometimes, all those buts (okay it was funny the first time but let’s move on) can be depressing and a real source of despair. As St. John of Damascus says, “What earthly joy remains unmixed with grief?” The non-rhetorical answer to that rhetorical question is nothing.
That sort of despair is something I struggle with. Sometimes the world seems bleak and very cold, with nothing good in it. Sometimes the buts get so big (now it’s just gratuitous) that it can be hard to see the good that’s there too.
But that’s not true. The world, and everything in it, is “very good” (God’s words, not mine). God created earthly things, and we can enjoy them and know Him through them. They’re a source of joy and comfort and laughter for us, and that’s not a bad thing. The problem comes when we stop there, when we take the happiness the world can give us and don’t try and go beyond.
The things we experience are ultimately unsatisfying: as Jesus says, everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again and again and again until we stop being able to thirst. But he’s not telling us not to drink water! He’s not telling us to not enjoy it. It’s good to drink water and enjoy it, as long as we’re seeking the living water too. It’s good to enjoy earthly things, as long as they don’t stay merely earthly, as long as we’re seeking the heavenly too.
Earthly things don’t satisfy us because we weren’t made for earthly things. The world doesn’t make us perfectly happy because it’s far from perfect. A traveler doesn’t feel at home in a hotel because he’s not at home. We don’t feel at home here because we’re not at home. We are, like Abraham, strangers and sojourners. Our home is heaven, and we “desire a better country” (Hebrews 11:16).
When we feel most comfortable with just our earthly lives, we’re in danger. When we forget the things of the earth are mortal, we make them immortal; when we make them immortal, we make them gods, and we forget the Immortal God who is our true home, our true Life. It is when we are most conscious that “heaven and earth will pass away” that we are able to be closest to Christ.
It is this sort of dissatisfaction, a true, godly satisfaction which stems from the knowledge that no matter how good it is (and it is very good), it will be taken away and replaced with (or rather, transformed into) something much better, that is a gift from God.
Earthly things are wonderful, but it is God who gives them meaning and worth, and He graces us with this feeling to help us remember that. Today, I thank God for giving us this dissatisfaction in order to remind us that we are not children of the world, but sons and daughters of the Most High.
Nicholas Zolnerowich is a junior biology student at UMBC, where he is also the president of his OCF. He enjoys the outdoors, superheroes, and talking about himself in the third person.
“Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.”
(Ikos 4, the Akathist of Thanksgiving)
As I sat down to work on this post, I realized that my laptop cord is juuuuuuust barely too short for me to sit in my favorite spot in the corner of the couch while it’s plugged in. So, as I type, I’m perched a smidgen in from the corner, right at the point where two cushions meet. (I realize that most of you are thinking, “Kiara, on what planet does this relate to that quote you put up there?” Hang on—we’ll get there.)
I’m caught somewhere between cozy-comfy and actually kind of uncomfortable. This is where my stubbornness gets the best of me because I refuse to scoot off of the cushion meeting point, just on principle. It’s dumb, I know, and I’m reminded of how frequently we feel this way. Not necessarily this specific situation (because honestly most people aren’t as absurd as I am), but how many times have you found yourself feeling two wildly different, even opposing, things at the same time? It’s more common than we’d like to admit, frankly.
And this is where Orthodoxy comes in. Our faith not only acknowledges but embraces the fact that we are all a bit (or a lot) of a living, walking paradox. Take our funerals: even as we mourn, we gleefully anticipate the departed’s eventual resurrection in Christ. There is room both for overwhelming sorrow and pain alongside breathlessly anticipatory hope. Take confession: it’s expressly designed to both acknowledge our pain and our wrong, as well as affirm our beauty and goodness as a child of Light. There is room for us to be both hurt and healed.
Even our God embodies two complete and contradictory truths because He is both fully God and fully man! If anyone understands being a paradox, it’s DEFINITELY Him.
Meet yourself where you are: it’s okay to feel annoyed by fasting, even as you’re excited for what the fast brings! In a perfect world, would we all love fasting and serve God flawlessly, without reservation and with our whole selves? You bet your bottom lip we would! Do we live in that world? Not even close.
Now, none of this is to say that we can slack off, or write off mediocre effort as, “Oh it’s okay, I’m just meeting myself where I am; Kiara said it’s fine.” Nice try my dudes, but that’s not how this works either. The point of this is not to give you justification to not give your all; it’s to remind you that perpetually beating yourself up and making yourself feel guilty because you haven’t had a perfect fast or didn’t go to church this week or whatever won’t solve anything. Repent, go to confession if at all possible, pick yourself up, and try again. Acknowledge the paradox: you have failed, but you are undefeated.
Now, to return to that quote, “Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.” When I read that (as I sat on my simultaneously comfy and uncomfy perch), all of this came flooding into my brain. I realize that’s a pretty big leap. Just roll with it.
Think of the times that we tremble. We tremble when we’re afraid, when we’re cold. We tremble when we’re so moved and joyful that it seems our body can’t contain it and we’re just going to vibrate away like a hummingbird flitting to nectar. We tremble when we’re nervous, and we tremble when we’re about to receive something we’ve anticipated for what feels like an eternity.
Within that one word, there are paradoxical multitudes. As there are paradoxical multitudes within us, and as there are paradoxical multitudes—both literal and figurative—within Orthodoxy. We are not alone in our contradictory truths. Look at the season we’re in; we’re fasting and preparing for the birth of Christ even as we feast and celebrate the innumerable joys in our lives.
By the time this post goes up, Thanksgiving will have just happened. And so, remember the delights for which you are thankful. And remember the delights for which you sorrow. Bring these seemingly competing truths and emotions together into one, and I have a feeling you’ll find a truth deeper than either side alone. Let yourself tremble in the face of your joy, let yourself tremble in the face of your struggle.
Glory to God for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.
Kiara (her Arabic-speaking friends like to call her cucumber, because apparently a khiara is a cucumber in Arabic—who knew?) Stewart is a first-year grad student at George Washington University. When she’s not reading endless art therapy texts or busy making art, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.
I know…a bunch of you are ready to fight me for such a bold and biased title. I would say they paid me to write this, but being part of the SLB is entirely voluntary. Just hear me out, and afterward you are welcome to write Ben a counter-argument.
1) You finally get to spend a week focused on your spiritual growth.
Most campers don’t know how to take ownership of their spiritual journey…they’re still trying to figure out if their skirts are long enough or if the counselors think they’re “cool”. Then, the counselors themselves are more focused on their campers’ experience at camp, or at least they should be.
Real Break is a chance to turn the focus back on you and your faith. While you are on your trip, whether it is a service project or a pilgrimage, you will have a moment, or ten, when this sense of peace fills you and you are simply reminded that “this came about from the Lord, and it is wonderful in our eyes.” Psalm 117(118):23
2) It’s like camp, but in March, with better food, and for adults-in-training
Confession time: I still miss camp, even after four years of adulting. Post Camp Depression (PCD) never truly goes away. But, to spend a week, away from the pressures of work and school and social media, surrounded by your brothers and sisters in Christ…I don’t know about you, but that was my favorite part about camp and is my favorite part about Real Break. You’re with 10 to 20 other college kids…adults…adults-in-training, and nobody knows anybody, yet within the first day, you will find that you have become a family.
Note: If you’re that person that decided to spend your Real Break maintaining your snap streaks…don’t. I promise you’ll get more out of it if you go off the grid. I recommend journaling (with pen and paper) instead.
3) Real Break is a once-in-a-lifetime experience
The trips and retreats organized by OCF are truly unique. First, they are pan-Orthodox. Unlike most church camps, your Real Break trip will have students from a variety of jurisdictions and from all over North America. The group itself is about as diverse as it gets.
Second, the trip’s mission presents a unique opportunity. The places you go and the things you’ll do will allow you to grow as an Orthodox Christian and simultaneously interact with a community that is not your own, yet welcomes you with open arms. Each Real Break trip has a different mission, but all have the same objective: to provide college students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I genuinely believe we accomplish that year after year.
Hi y’all! My name is Anna Sobchak, and I am so excited to be the Real Break Student Leader for this coming year. My OCF story has been filled with amazing brothers and sisters in Christ, some that I see at church every Sunday, and others that I’ve met through our National Programs, such as Real Break. Whether it’s dancing through the streets of Thessaloniki, praying on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, or hiking up to the monasteries of Meteora, these are the moments that have defined my college experience, and I can’t wait to share that with all of you.
This month, our Blog Contributors were asked to submit reflections on the Akathist of Thanksgiving, from which comes OCF’s 2018 theme, #GloryToGod. To kick off our series, here’s Mark Ghannam.
Winter is coming. As the winter days approach those of us who live in places where the weather takes a cold turn, perhaps the award for the timeliest spiritual metaphor should be given to “the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm…” which is taken from the Akathist service of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Let us use this metaphor to reflect on what the storm clouds are in our spiritual lives.
Through every season of our lives, the storm clouds of doubt, fear, jealousy, pride, and so on will always be around us. These storm clouds inhibit our ability to perceive, and delight in, the eternal light and hope of the Son.
Some of us may think we are impervious to the storms of life, or we mistakenly think that if we manipulate our external circumstances enough, we can completely defend ourselves against them. If I only had this material good, I would be happy. If I can just pull my grades up. If I can just land that internship.
This is simply not how it works.
“For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Scripture tells us explicitly that the storms of life, spoken of in the Akathist, are an inevitable part of human existence.
What are we to do?
Unfortunately, umbrellas, Hunter rain boots, and Canada Goose jackets are not enough for these kinds of storms. We cannot hide, or pretend they do not exist, as many of us try to do. The Akathist has a much better answer.
“The storm clouds of life bringeth no terror to those in whose hearts Thy fire is burning brightly. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm; but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light, peace, and silence”
– Akathist of Thanksgiving, Kontakion 5
So many people will tell you that being a Christian is about being a good person, and that the Church exists so that it might spread good values. This is an understatement that is more egregious than saying “in college, you might have to do some work outside of class once in a while.”
Of course we are to be good people, and of course, as the Church, we must spread good values. However, there is a much higher calling to which we are called. The good news of Jesus Christ is about more than morality. It is about a total transformation, a radical repentance, that allows us to warm our hands by the fire of truth and beauty that lives inside of us.
We must dig deep within us to access, and live in, that place where our hearts our aflame with the love of Jesus Christ. The storm clouds can cover that place up, and make us believe it is not there. Fear and desire stand guard to keep us from paradise. If we can learn to set aside fear and desire through our spiritual practice, the gates of paradise will appear as they truly are: open.
In the external world, there is chaos. Deep within us is a place of silence and peace; a calm that is unmarred by the storms of life. We must go there. There is no other way.
St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that “the highest form of prayer, is to stand silently in awe before God.” If we want to learn to brave the storms that will inevitably come, we must learn, and practice, finding the peace that resides deep inside of us.
Where to start?
Take a deep breath. Sit for a moment.
School keeps us busy. Emails, texts, social media, etc, are brilliant distractions that tear our minds away from our peace.
Start with five minutes. Take five minutes out of your day to set your phone aside (screen facing down), and sit silently. Make the sign of the cross, and just sit in silence and stillness. It is no mistake that the spiritual life is often called “practice”. Acquiring the spirit of peace, takes practice. We must practice being still, being silent, and waking up to the reality of the presence of God in our lives.
“We’re talking about practice!”–Allen Iverson
In this space, I speak a lot about the limits and constraints that college life puts on our participation of the faith.
I’ve written about prayer, confession, service, almsgiving–all through the lens of our limits as poor, busy, terrified-for-our-future college students.
The intention there is clear–and, I believe, justified. As a ministry oriented towards college students and the Orthodox faith, it is appropriate that we would create resources to help college students address the obstacles between them and the ideal practice of their faith. It is also appropriate that we would share stories of success, of the aspects of our collegiate life that help us grow in our faith (see: reflections on OCF retreats/programs).
Of all of the sacraments and practices of the Church, however, I don’t think any one is as clearly helped by our college life than fasting.
Those are my two cents–they’re worth exactly two pennies. If your experience is different, which is entirely possible, then you may disagree. Furthermore, I am in no way saying that fasting is easy. It is not. I will struggle with it, whine (waaay too much) about it, and fail at it inevitable this season.
But my experience of fasting at college has always boiled down to pure, undiluted, individual choice.
Of course, most everything boils down to choice. Pray before you go to sleep? That’s a choice. Get up for church on Sunday mornings? That’s a choice. But in so many of these life choices, we can feel constrained and steered by many other external factors. We feel that these motivations and limitations rob us of our choice.
But fasting–the exclusion of meat and/or dairy from the diet–more easily distances itself from these limiting factors. Why? Because, at college, you have significant control over what you eat.
Let’s say you’re on a meal plan. Well, you typically walk into a large cafeteria that has many food options–and there’s going to inevitably be at least a vegetarian option, if not two or three. In that moment in which you hold the empty tray in your hands, there is nothing impeding your path to the pepperoni pizza, and there is nothing impeding your path to the salads. The call is yours.
Let’s say you aren’t on a meal plan–then you buy your own food. Yeah, if you have roommates who cook for the whole apartment, now you’re in a bit of a bind. You have to strike a balance between asking them to keep your dietary restrictions in mind for 40 days (less, because you won’t even be at college for some of them) and cooking your own food. But I believe that’s possible.
Especially because OCF has a fasting cookbook for you!
New OCF College Lenten Cookbook
As I said at the beginning of this post, OCF helps address the obstacles between the college student and the full realization of their faith. Despite the extent to which I personally find fasting to boil down to a choice, you may not. That’s where the cookbook comes in. It’s full of recipes to help you make it through the fast, recipes that are so simple you can make many of them with nothing but a plate and a microwave.
Often, we leapfrog choice with willful ignorance. Because choice is hard–it forces us to evaluate what we truly value–and often leads to less instantly gratifying decisions, we attempt to circumvent it by denying its existence. We ignore the information that gives us the power to choose. We don’t learn the strategies, listen to the sermons, read the books, so we can pretend we did the best we could–because that was all we knew.
If you’ve arrived here–at the end of the post–then your choice in fasting has hopefully been exposed. If your mind, instinctively seeking an out, whispered an insistence that you didn’t have the means to cook fasting food for yourself, hopefully the cookbook proves a counter-punching resource for you.
It’s my favorite Bible quote–it seems to always apply–so let’s drop it right here to end this post. In the 13th chapter of John, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them. He’s preparing to be Crucified. He then says:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17
Note: If you have any cool fasting recipes/easy fasting treats or anything in between, the 2018 Lenten Cookbook is currently being compiled. Go here for a recipe submission form!
I couldn’t be more blessed with my parish here in Chicago.
There are tons of Orthodox churches all across the city. I know that different students from different OCFs way across the city go to different churches, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find the one in which I feel both comfortable and pushed to be better; welcomed, and supported.
Parish life can be something over which we gloss in OCF. Many of our pillars–fellowship, education, service–replicate exactly those that are utilized by the many healthy parishes across the nation. OCF organizes service trips; so do many churches. OCF organizes Scripture study and book readings; so do many churches.
Now, OCF serves these similar functions as the parish for a distinct reason: As a college student, it can be quite tricky to become engaged in these aspects of parish life. Church youth groups are often geared toward younger students, and rightfully so: once those youth leave for college, they can no longer be members of the group.
Meanwhile, the adults of the parish–even those on the younger side–have likely been members of the parish for a few years. Their concerns are perhaps starting a family, settling in to their profession, creating a state of permanence that a nomadic college student simply cannot. They’re at a different stage in their life.
And accordingly, OCF creates a community of the like-minded, similar-staged college students, that we may be buttressed by these pillars of education and fellowship and service in the Church.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough.
That being said, we must recognize a crucial point: Both college life, and by extension, OCF life are not meant to replicate the aforementioned permanence of a fledgling adult who has landed in a home, has a home parish, and has some real consistency to their lives. College and OCF life are, by their nature, transient.
We forget this because we spend years–long, hard, awful years–in high school being told that the end is college; that we must appropriately cite our sources, because we will have to do that in college; that we must do extracurricular activities, because colleges will like that. Our paradigm for decision-making and effort is solely based on college as an end goal. But it is not an end. It is a means to an end.
The end of all things is Christ. The end of all things is the second coming and eternal salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven. As Orthodox Christians, standing in the face of this truth, everything we do must be geared toward arriving at this end as prepared and humble servants; as guests wearing the wedding garments; as virgins with oil in our lamps.
As such, my encouragement to you today is to examine: what are your ends? Do you do what you do to get good grades? To get a good job? To make money? To have a family? To live a happy life? Perhaps, even, do you do what you do because it feels good in the moment? I cannot tell you how you should divide your efforts on a daily basis, but I do know that the Lord said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” If there’s something in your life that isn’t leading you to the kingdom, you have to sit and think about that.
It is in this mindset and in this spirit that I return to my original point: I am so blessed with the parish that I have. It is youthful, thriving, and joyous. If I wanted to show anyone what Orthodoxy looks like–not in a monastery on a hill or a village in the home country–but in the center of a city in America, I would take them here.
But I don’t participate in that parish nearly as much as I should. Don’t get me wrong: I go to church every week that I’m in Chicago. (Okay, I was really sick like two weeks ago, but you get the point.) But my involvement with OCF–good, valuable, important to me–fools me into believing that I needn’t involve myself with my parish.
However, I know that, as the future rolls ever toward me, parish involvement is on my horizon. I know that, to make it to the kingdom, I need a home parish. I need that stability, that consistent involvement, those people who know me well through my faith. I know that my opportunities to serve, to learn, and to commune will no longer come from OCF in the nearing future. And I have to start preparing for that.
My prayer is that the Lord helps me do this. It is difficult, to pull oneself far back, to such a wide-reaching perspective–but, it allows the self to make more level-headed, forward-thinking decisions. It is only by looking at the long-term can we gain the insight needed to change the short-term.